Ascending Highland Bowl, Aspen Highlands’ crowning glory, is one for the bucket list. But before you make the trek, consider these locals’ tips.
Hiking Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands is a rite of passage for any diehard skier or snowboarder. It’s a 782-foot bootpack ascent from the top of the Loge lift. Without a doubt, when you ski Highland Bowl, you have earned your turns.
My son and I made the trek a few weeks ago. Aspen Highlands was reporting four inches of fresh snow, and it had continued to dump all morning. We joined the conga line of dozens of skiers and riders inching up the ridge, rabid for fresh snow.
I’ve hiked the Bowl several times over the years, so you’d think I’d have the adventure dialed. Not so.
I had my skis strapped to a ski-carrying backpack, but my son was shouldering his skis, which compromised his blood flow, leaving him with cold fingers. Halfway up, he stole my pack. As I was huffing my way up, now shouldering my skis, it occurred to me that my asthma inhaler was in the car.
“Do you have any water?” my son asked as we neared top.
Over the course of the hour plus hike, I had many realizations about how we could have been smarter about our hike up.
So that you don’t go unprepared, we’ve tapped longtime Highlands locals to share their tips, tricks, and advice for a successful uphill hike of Highland Bowl. Read on for words of wisdom from Mac Smith, director of ski patrol at Aspen Highlands; Matt Ross, a two-time 24 Hours of Aspen racer who’s called Aspen home for 28 years; and Cindy Hirschfeld, a former Aspen Highlands and Snowmass ski instructor and the current editor in chief of Aspen Sojourner.
Wear a ski- or snowboard-carrying pack or strap setup: Patrol HQ, located at the top of Loge Peak, sells “Bowl Straps” for carrying skis or snowboards for $10. “It’s a long piece of webbing and getting it on is a little like origami,” says Hirschfeld. But having your hands free makes it easier to hike and it helps keep your hands warm. Click here for more ski and snowboard carry packs and devices for hiking the Bowl.
There’s a definitive boot packed trail up the ridge, and different hikers are moving at different paces. That can cause traffic jams. “If you’re going to stop to take a rest, rearrange your gear, or you’re just moving slowly, step to the side and let others pass,” says Ross. Hirschfeld adds: “Some locals are on a mission to get in a certain number of laps. If there’s a big gap ahead of you, the etiquette is to let the faster hikers by.”
That said, Mac Smith, the longtime Highlands ski patroller who’s been in Aspen for 47 years, has another perspective: On a powder day, there’s a conga line going all the way to the summit. The pace is going to be the pace. As long as you’re moving, and you’re continuing your stride, the person behind you should be patient.” If you do pull off to the side, be smart about it and make sure you’ve picked a safe spot.
If you want to avoid what patrol calls the “Highland Tattoo,” wear a neck gaiter. There’s a danger of getting frostbite specifically on the right cheek, as the winds tend to come from the southwest and the northwest. “Be cognizant of the interface between the gaiter and goggle,” advises Smith. “It’s an issue up there.”
Most runs in Highland Bowl are 35 degrees. That’s steep. You need to have the skills to tackle the descent and to know how to self arrest if you do take a spill. “Get on your belly, grab the poles at the basket, and slam them into the ground,” says Smith. Self arresting is a technique you should always have in your back pocket whenever you’re skiing steeps.
Depending on conditions, the resort often runs a free snowcat that transports hikers from Loge Meadow to the edge of the bowl at Whip’s Veneration. There’s no shame in taking a ride on the snowcat, says Hirschfeld. “It cuts off the first part of hike, a good 15-20 minutes. Some locals are too proud to take a ride. I have no such delusions.” Smith wishes more people took the snowcat as it enables skiers and riders to get in two or three laps instead of just one. “People getting extra laps helps us compact the snow in the Bowl.”
“You’re going up to 12,392 feet with a 782-foot ascent from the top of Loge Lift,” says Ross. “You need water to keep you going. Be sure to drink plenty of it and then drink some more.” Drink a cup of water before you leave the lodge and carry water with you. Collapsible water bottles are a lightweight option. If it’s a cold day, a container of warm herbal tea might hit the spot. And toss a few energy bars in your pack, too. You’ll definitely burn some calories on the hike up. Click here for more water-toting gear ideas for hiking the Bowl.
“It’s going to be a workout, especially if you are coming from sea level,” says Ross. “Make sure you take off some layers prior to starting to help regulate your body temperature and decrease the amount you perspire.” If you’ve got a jacket or pants with pit zips or thigh vents, open them up and get some air flowing. Hirschfeld recommends bringing along a lightweight beanie and attaching your helmet to your pack for the hike up. Click here for apparel ideas for layering up.
This one seems like a no brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t protect their grey matter on the slopes. “I’ve seen people doing a slide for life down Full Curl, and it is not pretty,” says Ross. Naturally, the ski patrol agrees: “Anytime you’re skiing in extreme areas, having a helmet is a good idea. There are moments where it can save your life,” says Smith.
Of course, everybody wants to get to the summit. “People get ‘Peakitis,’” says Smith. And it is cool at the top of Highland Bowl. There are prayer flags, an old chairlift seat, and the views are spectacular. (Bring your camera for a selfie with the Maroon Bells.) The Bowl’s highest point accesses the north-facing G-Zones, which tend to hold good wintery snow, says Smith. However, he suggests checking your surroundings as you hike. “In a good season, people are missing pristine skiing because they’re hiking right by it. Sometimes in the delta between Steep and Deep and Box Car, there are perfect lines in untracked snow,” he says. During a snow cycle in a good year, the Y Zones can be great, and you can access them without a hike (via the Hyde Park Traverse).
Smith has hiked the Bowl often enough that he’s grown philosophical about it. Sometimes people dread the uphill slog. “Slow down. Take a breath. Take in the vista—Pyramid Peak, The Maroon Bells, and fourteeners like Castle Peak and Conundrum,” says Smith. “Feel the Hemingway moments in your life.”
Helen Olsson is the author of The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids. She blogs about outdoor adventures with kids at maddogmom.com